Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by “the streets”, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual link between the music they make and the built environment where they do so is generally underplayed – spoken about as a matter of mood, or a source of lyrics. Music historians generally cite a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well that’s mainly just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out – though David Bowie’s residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels.
But what if a city’s role isn’t quite so one-note? Washington Post journalist David Maraniss became obsessed with that question, particularly in respect to Motown. “I was fascinated by the idea of why the musical magic happened in Detroit,” he says. “What is it about some cities and civilisations that bring about these creative bursts?”
While writing his recent biography of Detroit, Maraniss came across the usual reasons cited for the rise of Motown in Detroit. First, the migration of African Americans from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana for factory jobs, bringing with them the oral traditions of church music, jazz and blues. Next, the entrepreneurial genius of one family, Berry Gordy Jr and his four sisters, who created Motown and made it flourish.
But Maraniss also dug into the city’s economic geography, and learned that the vast majority of Motor City residents in the 20th century lived not in high-rise apartments, but in two-storey, single-family homes – which made it easier for the local piano manufacturer Grinnell Brothers to deliver pianos to families, including Gordy’s. The particular construction of homes in Detroit, unlike many other predominantly black factory cities in the US, meant that they were crucial to the development of the Motown sound.
Berry Jr. Gordy;Stevie Wonder;Smokey RobinsonMotown founder and pres. Berry Gordy playing the piano as group incl. Smokey Robinson (rear) and Stevie Wonder (2R) join in singing together at Motown Studios. (Photo by Steve Kagan//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Motown founder Berry Gordy plays the piano as Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder sing together at Motown studios. Photograph: Steve Kagan/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
“I had no idea about the role of pianos, specifically Grinnell Brothers,” Maraniss writes, “until I started interviewing Motown musicians, singers and local historians, all of whom made the connection and said they had pianos in their homes.”
You can hear how important the piano was to the Motown sound in, for example, Earl Van Dyke’s passioned, pounding keyboards on to Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, My Guy or For Once in My Life. “The affordability of the pianos, the disposable income of Detroit’s working class, and the fact that it was a city of single-family homes – mile after mile of sturdy brick two-storey houses with commodious first-floor rooms into which pianos could be moved easily – all played roles,” Maraniss says.
Which got us thinking: if Motown owed its life to easy ground-floor access, where else has urban design shaped musical genres?
The garages of grunge
The cradle of creation for the 1980s band Screaming Trees, considered one of the godfathers of grunge, was a garage in the back of a video store. The store was owned by the parents of Van and Gary Lee Conner, in Ellensburg, a small city outside Seattle. The young Conner brothers painted the walls of the garage, pinned posters to the ceiling and hung up Indian tapestries and psychedelic bedspreads. For a while, Gary Lee lived in it. When they were joined by singer Mark Lanegan and drummer Mark Pickerel, the new band played a couple of small shows there, too.
The garage helped to reinforce the rawness and the energy of the music
Gary Lee Conner
“The best thing about the garage was that it was totally isolated, like another world we had created for the band,” recalls Gary Lee, who played guitar in Screaming Trees. “Since it was downtown, we could make noise all night long and not have to worry about bothering anyone.”
Garages might be built for parking cars, bikes or household junk, but their spiritual purpose, we know now, is to kickstart creativity, whether you’re inventing a Mac or starting a band. Yet for the Screaming Trees, the garage wasn’t just a place to practice: it physically shaped their sound.
“Like most garages, ours had a concrete floor and drywall, with boxes of junk stored around the place,” Gary Lee says. “But the echoes and reflections from that stuff created a sound different than, say, a club or a studio.” Just listen to the soaring screech of his guitar on the band’s 1986 debut album, Clairvoyance: that scuzzy, distortion-laden sound. “The garage helped to reinforce the rawness and the energy of the music. We never had another place like that after we moved over to Seattle, but the spirit of our music never really changed.”
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain plays guitar in his childhood home in Aberdeen, Wash.
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Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain plays guitar in his childhood home in Aberdeen, near Seattle, Washington. Photograph: AP
Moreover, 25 years on from Nirvana’s Nevermind, musicologists still wonder why the grunge scene in particular coalesced around the cities of the Pacific Northwest. Certainly, geographical isolation was a likely factor: Seattle in the 1980s wasn’t the cosmopolitan Starbucks-Microsoft-Amazon city slicker of today, and it was all very far away from the music industry hives of New York and Los Angeles. “There was a culture of innovation and experimentation, a ‘what do we have to lose?’ attitude”, says Dr Tom Bell, an expert on the geography of American popular culture at the University of Tennessee.
But in those west coast cities, it also rains a lot. Not only did that damp marine climate probably persuade bands to stay in their garages and practise more, but it’s also fairly temperate, meaning the garages were warm enough to hang out in without needing to be heated separately – unlike, say, Minneapolis, where an unheated garage is a miserable place in winter. Is it any coincidence that, long before the grunge, the Pacific Northwest was also home to the first garage rock bands like the Fabulous Wailers, Sonics and Trashmen?
The tower blocks of grime
The gleaming skyscraper of One Canada Square in east London’s Canary Wharf business district was a provocative inspiration for the 17-year-old Dylan Mills, who grew up two miles away, on the Crossways estate in Bow. “It’s in your face. It takes the piss,” he said after winning the 2003 Mercury prize for Boy in Da Corner, his debut grime album as Dizzee Rascal. “There are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell they’re not living the same way as us.”
Dizzee Rascal, aka Dylan Mills. Born in East London, his unique hybrid of hip-hop, drum and bass and UK garage, along with real-life tales of street crime, poverty, sex and guns, makes him unlike any other MC. His debut album ‘Boy in da Corner’ won the 2003 Mercury Music Award. 2003.
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Dizzee Rascal was born in east London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer
The tower blocks of east London estates like Crossways also, however, made ideal transmission sites for the pirate radio stations promoting grime, such as Rinse and Déjà Vu, because they were tall enough to broadcast far and wide: a 40W transmitter on a tower block can reach listeners up to 40 miles away.
The locations of these mobile radio stations were closely guarded secrets, but were usually to be found in council estates. “Station managers” were locked in a non-stop game of hide and seek with police: scaling balconies, leaping between rooftops, concealing transmitters inside rooftop ventilation ducts.
“These tower blocks were labyrinthine,” says photographer and film-maker Simon Wheatley, who spent more than a decade documenting the lives of grime musicians. “What were the police going to do? Search in every flat where a radio station might be? It was all very hush-hush. You had to make a phone call before someone would come down and let you in. Often the station was in someone’s home, sometimes in their kitchen, microphone and decks next to the sink.”
While he recalls friendly cups of tea with grime musicians’ mums, Wheatley also noticed how the urban landscape and geography of east London influenced the darker themes and sounds of grime. “The time of grime was time of postcode warfare and stabbings,” he says. “Territorialism meant some of these young people were scared to get a bus that would go through certain neighbourhoods. Estates had a fortress-like physical appearance, and I was able to see my photographs when I heard the dark beats of grime.”
The warehouses of techno
It may not have been invented there, but there is perhaps no other city where techno has thrived as much as it has in Berlin – a city perfectly suited to large electronic dance parties due to its abandoned spaces, empty warehouses and underground bunkers. When the Berlin Wall came down, 30% of buildings in east Berlin were empty, says Der Spiegel journalist Tobias Rapp, the author of a book on the city’s clubbing scene. “Techno in Berlin happened in ruins,” he says. “E-Werk was an empty electricity factory. Tresor was the empty bank vault of a former shopping centre. Planet was an empty warehouse.”
When you record a group of musicians, you’re not only recording the music, you’re recording the environment
DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing. But in a book by journalists Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, Detroit DJ Robert Hood describes how the “dark and murky” clubs of post-Wall Berlin, such as Tresor, transformed techno from “a fantasy-based electronic sound” to a more “reality-based” sound – more “brutal and assertive” as local DJs began intensifying the speed and abrasiveness of the sound into something harsher, more hardcore.
The 100cm concrete walls at his subterranean club Tresor also played their part, thinks founder Dimitri Hegemann. “The sound was really hard and deep. The room was not too big and the ceiling not too high, so that the sound waves had no time to distort,” he says. “It sounded clear, but everything was analogue. Other club owners began checking our sound systems to do the same.”
David Bowie at Hansa studio, Berlin. Photograph: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis
The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios. Much of the recording of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy – Low, Heroes and Lodger – was completed at Hansa studios in the Kreuzberg district of west Berlin. Just a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall, Hansa was an almost neighbourless building, pockmarked with shell-holes, most of its windows bricked up. From the control room, Bowie and his producer, Tony Visconti, could see over the Wall to the Red Guards in their gun turrets, who stared back through binoculars. Marooned inside east Germany, west Berlin was, for Bowie, “a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution”.
When Visconti returned to Hansa last year, he described how the city can be heard in those recordings. “The danger created the sound,” he said. “I’ve heard records made here afterwards, and they didn’t have that impending doom. When we came here [to record], we knew what we were doing. When you record a group of musicians, you’re not only recording the music, you’re recording the environment. And Berlin was the perfect place.”
The community centres of hip-hop
No other music genre shouts louder about its debt to the streets than hip-hop – but the surprising truth, according to Mark Naison, professor of history and African American studies at Fordham University in New York, is that hip-hop was mainly a product of community centres.
“New York was the one city where public housing was not abandoned or knocked down or allowed to deteriorate even during the worst years of arson, disinvestment and deindustrialisation,” Naison says. “And more of the early hip-hop jams took place in community centres than on street corners.”
Every housing project had community centres staffed by social workers. Many sponsored dances and talents shows where bands and DJs could perform. These centres served as a bridge between generations and communities, allowing young artists rhyming over beats to perform with R&B singers or Latin and funk bands who kept alive older traditions of instrumental and lyrical virtuosity, argues Naison.
DJ Kool Herc, for example, held his first jams in the community centre of Sedgwick Avenue of the west Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa held his first parties in the Bronx River Community Center, jump-starting hip-hop in his section of the Bronx. In a borough where many people lived in five-storey tenements or high-rises where air conditioning was unaffordable, public spaces were a more comfortable place to hang out. In the summer months, with doors and windows thrown open to counter the heat, whatever music they played or performed in the community centres was heard and shared by the whole neighbourhood.